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Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.

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Me Missus

There is an unwritten code of proper conduct among canal folk. Actually, most real canal folk would not have anything to do with a “code of conduct”. What they would say is simply :”we look out for each other.”

Part of that looking out is a sense of courtesy melded with practicality. For example, if I lose my temper at your hitting my boat and tell you to “sod off”, then we both know that things will be awkward the next time we share a lock — and we both know that, things being as they are, we will at some time share a lock again. So, I keep my mouth shut.

One of these practical courtesies is:  in a flight of closely located locks, you watch who is coming down and who going up so that things work most efficiently for everyone; if two boats are coming up a flight and two going down, the tiller-persons of each pair watch the other pair and work to make it easy for the downward pair to enter the locks you are leaving and for the upward pair to cross in the water in between (the “pound”) and enter the now vacant locks.

Last week we were engaged in just such elementary manoeuvres at the Hillmortin flight of three locks– arranged in pairs of two side-by-side.  I had gone ahead to the second set of locks to get ready for our boat and my son-in-law’s boat to make the above mentioned cross-over. Well. No sooner did I get there than I realise that one boat is draining their lock in preparation to moving into the no-man’s land of the pound and so allowing another boat to begin locking down out of sequence.  I know it sounds complicated, but, trust me, it’s like in a square dance — what would it be like if one person randomly decided to skip ahead to a different partner — no matter that the other had a partner already?

So, I said to the guilty woman draining her lock: “do you not see that there are a pair of boats coming up?” “Oh yes” says she “I sees them, but they’s  takin too long so I say “bugger that” and off we go.”

Alas, ever trying to be the calming influence, I went on without a word and began to prepare the other lock for our boat. Unfortunately I did comment to a fellow at the lock gate that I was at a loss to explain why that woman had jumped the queue, as it were, and made life difficult for everyone.

The gentleman, who much resembled a fire-plug after a nice week in Majorca, rounds on me and shouts: “Are ye ‘avin a go at me missus?” while at the same time stumping forward in a menacing manner that had me trying to recall the last time I was actually hit in the face.

Suddenly, grasping the relationship between thoughtless twit and fire plug — I hastily said: “No, no, I was just asking if she was aware that other boats are coming up.”

Unassuaged, my oil on the waters was met with a pit-bull growl as the fire plug advanced and thrust his jaw forward somewhere down near my sternum.

Fortunately, at that moment the plug’s “missus” called to him that he “damn well better get on the boat if he didn’t fancy walking…”. And so the confrontation was diverted by necessity. Blessed necessity.

I expect this sounds a bit arcane to the non-canal world. But, as I said,  it was all just a square dance, albeit among 20 ton boats, that went wrong —  and almost came to blows over my simply trying to be helpful…

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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.